LAWRENCE — Conner Frankamp believes in himself. Not that Perry Ellis doesn’t. Quite the opposite. Ellis is brimming with confidence as the college basketball season begins. It just took him a while to brim.
It won’t take Frankamp a while. He might not play well at times as a freshman at Kansas, but it will have nothing to do with self-doubt or an acclimation process.
In many ways, Frankamp and Ellis are different despite their City League pedigrees — Frankamp became the City League’s career scoring leader at North, overtaking Ellis, a year older and leader of four straight state championship teams at Heights.
The 6-foot-9 Ellis is a power source. He’s much bigger, stronger and faster than he was at Heights and after he finally decided to be somebody about two-thirds of the way through last season, he was a big contributor.
Now, as national magazines sing the praises of freshman Andrew Wiggins and a couple of other KU freshmen look like potential one-and-done players, it’s Ellis that KU coach Bill Self is propping up.
“Perry easily could be our leading scorer this season,” Self said. “Or he could be our fourth-leading scorer. But he’s certainly talented enough to be our leading scorer. He’s been great. He had a great last third of the season last year and he’s had a really good spring and summer. I think Perry will be able to take the next step.”
Ellis was a baby bird that Self had to push out of the nest to see whether he would fly. Passive by nature, Ellis had trouble keeping his engine running. He forced himself to be aggressive because it didn’t come naturally. But in KU’s last 11 games, Ellis’ engine had a nice purr.
In those 11 games, he averaged 9.4 points, 5.0 rebounds, shot 89.7 percent from the free-throw line and 60.3 percent from the field.
Compare those numbers to Ellis’ first 26 games: 4.3 points, 3.4 rebounds, 65.4 percent from the line, 39.2 percent from the floor.
“I forget which game it was when everything came together,” Ellis said.
It was in a February home game against TCU. Ellis had played only 30 minutes in the previous four games, but against the Horned Frogs he scored 12 points in 15 minutes. He found something.
“At the beginning of the season last year I was playing 100 mph in practice,” Ellis said. “I was trying to do everything as quick as I could. Then I learned that I really didn’t need to do that. And making my free throws also helped me get into the rhythm of things.”
Ellis was always such a good foul shooter at Heights, but he was clanking a bunch at Kansas. He couldn’t make himself settle down. He often drove without much control to the basket, then was forced to throw up a shot that had no chance of going in. But those uncomfortable times finally started to pay off and Ellis started to look more like the four-time All-State player he was at Heights.
“Basically, it was a matter of confidence and having the confidence to make plays,” Self said of Ellis.
Self knew Ellis would be tough to crack. And there were times last season when Ellis’ sporadic play frustrated the KU coach.
“His personality is very quiet and he gives off the appearance of being so laid back,” Self said. “Perry is a whole different level of quiet. You could be in a room with Perry and neither person would speak for 24 hours.
“But he was also the Kansas high school player of the year four times, so the fire burns. I just think that sometimes as a young kid, no matter how much you try to stress it, they still want to please the older kids.”
Now, Ellis is one of the older kids.
“I definitely feel like I have become more of a leader now,” Ellis said. “A lot of these guys are looking up to me and I’m just trying to show them how to play hard.”
He probably won’t have to spend much time emphasizing “play hard” to Frankamp, who has never had a moment of doubt on a basketball floor. That doesn’t mean Frankamp doesn’t recognize the difference between being the top dog at North and trying to fit in with a bunch of outstanding players at Kansas. It just means that he’s not intimidated by the notion.
“I feel like I’m a pretty confident person, especially on the basketball court,” Frankamp said. “Of course there are things that I have to work on. But I’m always in the gym a lot. There are going to be some adjustments because of the level I’m playing at now.”
Self can hardly wait to unleash Frankamp, a 6-foot-1 guard who tilts when there’s a 20-mph wind, on unsuspecting opponents. He doubts they’ll be unsuspecting for long.
“If there’s somebody who can shoot better than Conner, I would like to see him because I think he can shoot it maybe as well as anyone we have had here,” Self said. “Whether he can do it under game conditions remains to be seen, but we certainly think he can.’’
Frankamp will likely begin his college career as a zone buster and spot-up shooter. He knows some are skeptical about his upside because he lacks size. Just more fuel to his already-raging fire.
“I do hear those people every once in a while,” Frankamp said. “I just have to prove myself and everything will be fine. I work a lot on my shot. As a freshman, I feel like I can do whatever Coach Self asks me to do. I can knock down shots and I want to try to be a defensive stopper as well.”
It’s possible still that Frankamp could be redshirted. Kansas has an abundance of depth and after KU's exhibition opener Tuesday night against Pittsburg State, Self said Frankamp was thinking too much after he missed the three shots he took.
Ellis and Frankamp aren’t the first City League icons to play together at Kansas. During the 1979-80 season, Heights’ Darnell Valentine and South’s Ricky Ross started the season together. Valentine was a junior, Ross a freshman. They combined to average 28.2 points for a 15-14 KU team. Valentine was the leader of a 1980-81 team that went 24-8 and reached the Sweet 16; Ross left the Jayhawks after one season.
Ellis and Frankamp are just starting out together. And won’t it be fun to see where they go?